Hope for a promised land

Rev John Barendrecht, Manager of Pastoral and Placements for the Uniting Church WA, is retiring from his placement on Sunday 30 July, after taking long service leave from Friday 9 June. As the Uniting Church in Australia approaches its 40th anniversary, John reflects on his 39 years of ministry.

I began my training for ministry as a student from the Congregational Church, and finished with the Uniting Church. My first placement was at Dalwallinu in 1978.

After 39 years of active ministry I will retire in July 2017, meaning I have been in placements for nearly all of the forty years that the Uniting Church anniversary celebrates this year.

I began my journey of ministry with all the hope and enthusiasm that the church I was part of was indeed a hopeful sign of how to live the message of Jesus in a contemporary way. Those who have been in the Uniting Church as long as I have will remember early days where the mainstream and church-based press referred to the Uniting Church as the ‘Australian’ church.

My ministry has always been both as an outsider who is looking in, and at the same time, an insider looking out.

Called into ministry with a congregational setting, I felt like an outsider within my own faith tradition. I saw worship styles and ecclesiastical habits which made no sense to me, yet mattered more than life itself to my congregations. Tradition mattered more than mission, and to this day I still don’t understand why.

At the same time, I felt like an insider who was looking out. By instinct, which in my later years was backed by practitioners and scholars in the ‘missional’ ministry field, I knew that to be in ministry, I needed to be part of the community. Ministry has always been about the hurts and hopes of the whole community for me, whilst at the same time recognising my particular responsibility to the hurts and hopes of the congregation.

I am now at the end of my current placement as Manager of the Pastoral and Placement Unit at the Uniting Church WA. This has enabled me to be deeply involved with the life of the whole Synod and Presbytery, working with ministers and congregations in the time when the National Church Life Survey shows that we have lost 40% of our attendees from 1991 to 2013.

In this environment, the word ‘missional’, which means the ability to engage with the community in which you live in a purposeful way, has no meaning. For some congregations, surviving is their primary goal.

The reliance on full-time ordained ministry is now out of the reach of about 70% of our congregations, in my estimation.  Also, the age profile of ministers in placement provides an interesting snapshot of the Uniting Church. With colleagues Rev David Kriel, Mission Planner at the Uniting Church WA and Rev Mark Illingworth, Manager of Pastoral Relations at the Uniting Church WA, we have done an age profile of current ministers in placement in the Synod/Presbytery of WA. We have 57 ministers currently in placement whose age profile is as follows:

Under 40                             3                              5.2%

41-50                                     13                           22.0%

51-60                                     11                           19.2%

61-70                                     29                           50.8%

71-                                          1                              1.7%

These figures show the lack of a younger cohort coming through to replace the rapidly retiring ministers. Anecdotally it appears to indicate aging ministers for aging congregations.

So this is what it has come to in my nearly 40 years in the Uniting Church. We are in the wilderness, joining such august people as Moses. Moses at least got to see a promised land, though he never made it. I hope for a promised land for the Uniting Church. It is the hope that has kept me going all these years.

Despite the pessimism that sometimes saturates my thinking; I think there are some clues that may let us reach the promised land. Let me briefly outline some clues that 40 years in the wilderness have taught me.

  1. Ordained ministry is not the primary way to this land. Training is too slow, too rigid and too costly. The advent of vocational training, especially Certificate 4 in Christian Ministry, enables a more flexible and less costly ministry option that can also inspire lay members to own a call to ministry. It can also suit the Ministry of Pastor model, a model that supports ministry springing up from the congregations and the community. The mobility and adaptability of this model can also capture a younger cohort’s interest. This is not to do away with ordained ministry, but rather to broaden the base of ministry.
  2. Flexibility is essential. In a fast changing society, structures, rules and regulations must be adaptable, where resources are directed to innovative ministry models and away from rigid, immovable or disinterested members. Therefore closing some congregations and urging non-productive ministers into retirement may actually be life giving.
  3. There is always enough. Wise leadership does not require more, it requires leadership with new thinking and new courage, who believe that scarcity is really sufficiency if it is imaginatively used.
  4. See chaos and scarcity as an opportunity if the purpose is clear. Learn to live with it and in it.
  5. Immerse yourself in your current context. You can only survive as an organism if you live with those who share the air that you breathe.
  6. Be resilient.

Now, after nearly 40 years, this is where I leave the ministry and join my colleagues in retirement.

I have loved every bit of my ministry. I have grown as a person and learnt a lot of life’s lessons whilst still being true to my core values. I wouldn’t change a thing.

I wish the Uniting Church well as it moves beyond 40 years into the promised land.

Rev John Barendrecht

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